The St. Louis Cardinals signed Luke Gregerson to a two-year contract worth $11 million (with a vesting 3rd-year option) back in December of 2017 and it seemed like he was given the role of the closer. However, Gregerson’s injury, the signing of Greg Holland, and the recent performance of Bud Norris leaves Gregerson’s role in question.
Before we answer that, we have to know what version of Luke Gregerson did the Cardinals sign? In 2017, he won a World Series championship ring with the Houston Astros but wasn’t a predominant reason for their success in the regular season. The 33-year old reliever posted an ERA of 4.57 and a WHIP of 1.34 in 2017 across 61 innings pitched. He also pitched 3.2 innings in five appearances in the playoffs and did not allow a run.
The high ERA and WHIP, on paper, is concerning when talking about a reliever the team is supposed to trust in high leverage situations. However, there is also a lot of information that suggests Gregerson’s poor performance was bad luck. Over the course of his nine-year career, he has averaged 69 appearances per season with a 3.02 ERA and a 9.1 K/9 rate (10.4 if we look at the past two years only).
A lot of Gregerson’s lack of success in 2017 had to do with the long ball. He gave up 13 home runs or 1.9 home runs per 9 innings pitched which was the highest HR/9 rate of his career by a whole point. Again, that on paper is very concerning for a high leverage reliever but with his premium strikeout rates and the out of character increase in fly balls and home runs in 2017, one could reasonably expect Gregerson to return to his top form. And for what it is worth, Gregerson has performed well in his rehab assignments (hamstring) in which he appeared four times and recorded six strikeouts.
Now, assuming that Gregerson is a highly effective reliever for the Cardinals like he has been in the past for the Astros, Athletics, and Padres, the question becomes where does he fit? Bud Norris has recorded 3 out of 4 saves for the Cardinals to date and Greg Holland was signed on with the reputation and the expectation of being the closer. Gregerson, who many believed to be the closer prior to Holland’s signing, has more career saves (66) than everyone in the Cardinals bullpen other than Holland but with Holland’s shaky start he may not have that role either.
This likely results in Gregerson being used as a set-up reliever unless both Norris and Holland fail to consistently shut the door at the end of games. I expect Holland to be the closer for the majority of the season while Norris joins Gregerson as a 7th and 8th inning option. This would also throw Gregerson into the mix of Tyler Lyons, Dominic Leone, Jordan Hicks, and Brett Cecil (once healthy) of guys most likely to be trusted in hold or high leverage situations. Despite the poor performance by Lyons and Leone up to this point, this is an incredibly strong bullpen that is just getting stronger as guys get healthy.
This, typically, is a great problem to have but a lot of Gregerson’s usage and role will fall into Mike Matheny’s and Mike Maddux’s hands which has already proven to be unreliable this season. Regardless of how Gregerson is used and what his role is named, the Cardinals should expect to see a lot of sliders for strikeouts from him in big spots throughout the season. He may have had an unexpected issue with fly balls and home runs last year, but the peripherals and his history suggest he will do just fine (when used properly).